President Joe Biden won the state of Virginia by ten points in the 2020 presidential election. The 2018 midterms in Virginia was at least a mini-blue wave, featuring key wins by Representatives Jennifer Sexton, Elaine Luria, and Abigail Spanberger, substantially contributing to the Democrat’s regaining of a majority in the House of Representatives.
These elections seemed to signal a loss of American appetite for Trumpism. If it wasn’t a death blow to Trump’s divisive and authoritarian politics, hope at least seemed to be appearing that this could be the beginning of the end of America’s flirtations with the fear-based hateful politics of fascism, replete with a misogyny and racism on steroids.
And yet now Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Terry McCauliffe finds himself in a neck-and-neck race with Republican and Trump-acolyte Glenn Youngkin.
How does this sudden resurgence in voter predilection for the politics of chaos and destruction we witnessed the previous four years occur?
To understand this dynamic, I believe we have to understand the psychodynamics of abuse and trauma to which everyday American voters are subjected in U.S. culture and its socio-economic system. Shortly after Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016, I wrote a piece for PoliticusUsa titled “Trauma and Trump: Understanding America’s Vote Requires a Psychotherapeutic Approach” in which I explored the tendency of those who have been traumatized by abuse not to flee from abusive situations but rather to continue unconsciously to put themselves in and be attracted to abusive situations—and themselves sometimes become abusers, passing it on—until they are able to recognize, understand, come to terms with, and heal from the history of abuse they’ve endured.
I want to revisit some key points of analysis from that piece here to analyze the political dynamics of the moment in the Virginia gubernatorial race and, relatedly, in congressional politics around Biden’s Build Back Better plan.
First, let’s look at what’s happening in Congress. The Democrats are debating the possibilities and extents to which they can go to address climate change, expand healthcare coverage, assist Americans with childcare coverage, provide paid family leave, address child poverty through tax credits, make higher education accessible and more. That is, they are addressing the needs of tens of millions, hundreds of millions, of Americas and the deficiencies of our system that have created gross inequality and substantial suffering and hardship for masses of Americans.
While the Democrats squabble among themselves, inspiring Americans’ frustration, Republicans sit on the sidelines, refusing to discuss the issues or in any way support meaningful efforts to aid suffering Americans.
Yet we see the media and many Americans giving the Republicans, who engage in abusive behavior by refusing to do anything to help Americans in need, a free pass while blaming the Democrats.
McCauliffe has expressed his frustration in these terms, wishing congressional democrats would pass their infrastructure bills to help his chances, implicitly blaming Democrats instead of focusing on the Republicans who make no effort to help—just as Youngkin is more interested in talking about banning books and vaccine mandates than Americans’ real suffering.
This dynamic mirrors what we often see in abusive domestic situations. Take a scenario such as this: two brothers are fighting and the younger brother appeals to the father for help. The father comes and violently beats the older brother for picking on the younger brother. The older brother, abused by the father, blames the younger brother for the violence he has suffered, and not the actual abuser, the father. The older brother, instead of ending the cycle of abuse, continues to abuse the younger brother, gaining a feeling of power in doing so but not addressing the overarching abusive power structure at all.
Our political economic system has perhaps not so gradually been extending its abusive behavior to more and more of the population, and Americans are voting like the victims of intense systemic abuse that they are.
Victims of abuse typically often take actions, even or perhaps especially when seeking change, that replicate the conditions of abuse they have been enduring. As counselor and author Michael Formica explains, writing in Psychology Today, “Sometimes for the victim there is also a sense of familiarity and comfort in an abusive relationship, which is why victims will often return to an abusive relationship or, leaving one, will unconsciously seek out another.”
To say that the behavior, speech, and demeanor of Trumpism are abusive is an understatement. It’s what appeals to people. They call it, “Telling it like it is,” which suggests they are unconscious of gravitating toward an abuser and reconstituting an abusive scenario for themselves. The reporting on his behavior tends to reveal little other than Trump’s own pride in cheating, defrauding, disrespecting, and preying upon others—what he calls “winning.” In short, he celebrates his abusive behavior.
The thing about trauma, as Freud explains, is that we tend to repress the traumatic experience of abuse that caused it. Until we can recover that repressed experience through psychotherapy so we become conscious of it and can deal with it responsibly, we will seek to repeat the experience or to put ourselves in the conditions to have it repeated.
The vote for Trumpism and Youngkin is a vote for abuse—to re-experience it and to have it inflicted on others, a “let’s make others small so I can feel big and powerful” dynamic.
Indeed, in Virginia, Youngkin has now staked his bid on the banning of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, a novel rooted in the portrayal of the enslaved African American experience. Some Virginians don’t want to face this history that has traumatized all Americans in some way. This avoidance is typical of trauma victims; facing the history that caused trauma is painful.
Looking at the situation most sympathetically, we can see many Americans want a way out; we as a people genuinely want something different but don’t know how to get it.
The Virginia election will be a key referendum on whether America wants to move forward in ways President Biden has been directing us or stay attached to repeating the abusive dynamics of our history, as we saw in the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.